Kevin Hart has come out of nowhere in the last few years to become one of the highest-paid comedians of all time, and one of the most recognizable actors. He and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson can’t be ignored. You’re bound to see their faces at some point, whether that is on a talk show, a billboard, or at the movie theaters.
Earning $59 million last year, Kevin is a good rags-to-riches story to study. That’s why I read his book You Can’t Make This Up. I learned a lot about how he grew his personal brand over time, the personal and financial mistakes he made, and his positive mindset. Here is my book summary and notes.
Your life is the sum total of all the decisions you you made so if you don’t like your life, make different decisions.
Get over events that give you negative emotions quickly. He doesn’t dwell on something that causes depression, anger, or frustration, even though he had a dysfunctional, violent father. His dad was dishonest and had a tendency to steal. He would steal new toys and gadgets for his kids as gifts until his mom made him return them. He even stole money from his brother after his brother gave him a second chance by partnering with him in business.
He grew up poor. His mom bought him cheap alternatives for Christmas. He got girl’s tights when he asked for compression shorts for Christmas.
He attributes the systematized routine he had as a child to his success. As an actor now, he has scheduled out his day from when he wakes up until he goes to sleep. He gave an example day which was filled with meetings and filming, working all the way to 4 am.
He credits his mother for helping him succeed. She made sure he didn’t so drugs, steal, or anything bad even though all the other kids were.
Growing up, Kevin didn’t have a choice of how his mom raised him so he accepted it. It is better to see the positive than to get resentful at what you can’t change, making it that much worse. He didn’t switch from resentment to gratitude and appreciation overnight, but he began the process.
The secret to life is have fun. The fun guy always has people, including girls, who want to hang around him because he makes even boring stuff fun.
Kevin wasn’t good with girls in school. His mom cut his hair for him, which gave him bald spots. He worked his way from the most popular girls in the school that went out with football players to the bottom, exhausting the school supply to find someone who gave him a chance. He found a girl who lived in his city but didn’t go to his school but she wasn’t pretty.
No matter how low you get or how dark it gets, have faith that you can get to the light because there is always tomorrow. Kevin was feeling lower than low when no one told him to apply to college, and he missed the deadline. He saw all his friends get into awesome colleges and get awards at the end of the year but him.
Love what you do.
Sometimes, people only let you follow your dreams until they don’t have control of you anymore. At that point, they give common statements like, “Don’t quit your day job.”
You don’t need to know what you want to do. Life is already pulling you in that direction. Just trust the pull even if it pulls you away from family and friends.
The future is never certain. You can’t predict it. Be excited about what you can control. Be okay with what you cannot control. And move with certainty into an uncertain future.
Kevin got rejected by SNL. But he was part of a low budget comedy film that eventually helped him close a quarter million dollar Hollywood contract. If he had not done that movie, he wouldn’t have obtained acting material to showcase for his contract.
Every struggle is a lesson preparing you for the future even if you don’t appreciate it at the moment. Your greatest growth comes in the times of most struggle.
Sometimes, the best motivation is proving others wrong. Some of his friends and his brother told him he wasn’t cut out to be a comedian.
When your plan doesn’t work out, that’s a sign that there’s a bigger plan for you. Plans don’t always work out because there are other people with plans that may oppose you. Only one team can win in a basketball game. Also, there are factors out of your control.
The audience can sense when you are trying too hard. Be yourself. Slow it down since stage fright makes you speak faster.
Kevin had to learn to absorb advice he didn’t want to listen to, objectively evaluate it, and do it. He was impatient to move up, but his mentor told him he wasn’t ready and wasn’t learning what the other comics were doing. When you are told No, you go on the defensive, but sometimes the No is correct. Kevin started doing what the other comics were doing, testing every nuance of their act to make it better, including moving or tweaking a sentence, improving intonation, adjusting gestures and how to hold the microphone.
Hard work is not enough. The glue that holds all the principles of success together is commitment — keeping promises. He promised himself to make it to New York. He promised his mentor Keith to keep following his advice. That is the difference between the amateur and the expert. The unsuccessful get halfway to the finish and turn around. Kevin has seen people sabotage themselves by expecting compensation when starting out and getting bitter if they don’t get it. Kevin was relentless and would not quit even when others told him to give up. He grinded and studied in New York for years.
Kevin always wanted to ascend higher, but he saw others stay at a level because they were too content with where they were or scared of losing it.
Even Experts Can Be Wrong
Sometimes, even experts can tell you that you cannot succeed and they’re wrong. An established comic Lucian once told Kevin after a set that he should give up because he doesn’t have the talent. He did not give up, realized things take time, and kept working on himself.
Lucian was wrong about Kevin and other comics too, including one that he told was too white who eventually became the most famous comics of the 80s.
How to Become a Successful Standup Comedian
Nothing was beneath him. Kevin never rejected offers. Some shows paid five dollars. Sometimes, he would drive seven hours to a college and perform to get no laughs for no pay. The successful comics had the same attitude.
His mentor Keith told Kevin to stop making up stories and to be authentic by tell stories of his real life, especially the crazy stories he wanted to hide. He was told to use real conversations with real names and real feelings.
At first, he feared doing so because he didn’t want his mom to know about some of his stories (like calling the cops on his girlfriend because she hit him) and he feared the judgment. When he did it, he got some of the loudest laughs ever. Plus, his story had believability because it was real while the others he told weren’t.
This tip led to Kevin’s biggest epiphany of his career: people laughed at HIS REACTIONS, not the jokes. The stories didn’t have punch lines, and the situation was funny but not that funny. The humor was in his uniqueness and personality, not how he saw life but how he DID life. It wasn’t his jokes, delivery, or ideas that were funny. He was funny.
The comic exaggeration of him blubbering to the police to get his girlfriend away from him wasn’t that funny on the surface. But the look on his face and the image of the situation made people laugh. He didn’t need to be clever.
An entertainer makes you laugh. An artist makes you understand. Rather than just telling jokes, Kevin transformed his pain points into something that could touch and help others.
A true fan is worth much more than a booking because you have them for life. Do what you can to get more true fans.
Kevin took every gig he could get, including at colleges you’d never heard of and clubs no one else would do.
At the time, Dane Cook was the most famous comedian in the nation. Kevin asked Dean how he did it, and Dean told him he used Myspace and email addresses to stay in touch with his fans. Kevin started handing out papers to everyone who attended his show so they could fill in all the contact information they had, including address, social media, and email so that Kevin could hit them up each time he was in town. It worked and he started seeing familiar faces come to his shows.
Kevin’s career took another turn for the worst. You finally had enough material for a one-hour special, which is the holy Grail of comedy. He got advice from Eddie Murphy who is super famous and hard to get in contact with for the special. Eddie told him to don’t take advice because will work for someone else may not work for you. Kevin says is the best advice he ever got. But the special did nothing for him like everything else he did. He got another gig in a movie but the movie bombed and the critics ripped it apart. He ran out of money in his bank account. He had another child. He had to write a check that he knew would balance to stay at a hotel for a show. His wife’s mother drove him up there and refused to speak with him because he destroyed her credit rating by borrowing her credit card on faith he would pay on time. But he was persistent. He took every show he could get, even for high school football practices.
The most Kevin ever fought, other than with his wife, was with his booking agent. He knew how his agent wouldn’t close all the shows he got, but he would close a lot. The problem was all the organizers at the show wouldn’t like him, would fear him, or tell him that his agent was a dick.
He found out his agent yelled at and threatened people to pay up before Kevin showed up by saying Kevin wouldn’t come. The most Kevin would ever argue with people would always be around treating people professionally no matter the situation. It took years to convince his agent to be more kind. The agent would respond that it shouldn’t matter how he did it as long as he closed deals for Kevin.
Kevin ended up touring with a group of fellow comedians, all of whom he stumbled across. The clubs loved it because they booked multiple people with the same amount of effort and the crowd loved it because they got a consistent set of acts. They added one writer to the group because it was Kevin’s friend who couldn’t get a job, and Kevin felt sorry for him, not because Kevin needed a writer. But it turns out he was a great rider, and he always had one or two things to say after Kevin performed that would improve his act.These people keep Kevin and checking prevent his ego from going out of control. They eventually name themselves a plastic cup boys because they always held red plastic cups with alcohol in them wherever they went.
Kevin ended up adding a security guard to the troupe. He didn’t need security, but perception is everything. He wanted to look the part of someone successful.
Tips on Achieving Success
Always trust your gut when it conflicts with logic. Kevin declined a big executive’s offer to manage him. Kevin did this because the exec referred to Kevin’s work as “flinging a bucket of shit on the wall” which didn’t rub Kev the right way because of the hard work and sacrifices he put in. On paper, it seemed like he made a horrible decision as an up and coming comic but Kevin said he made the right decision.
If success depends on chance, The more you expose yourself to chance, the luckier you will be. All it takes is for one person to say one thing to change your life.
There were people more talented, hardworking, and persistent than Kevin. Kevin’s winning edge will always be his ability to be likable. He’s seen actors and actresses show up in TV not because that talented but because everyone liked them. Kevin’s mom raised him this way. He doesn’t see anyone as above or below him. Comedians, bartenders, and waiters told him of opportunities because of his likability.
Drinking, partying, and sleeping around are seen as networking in LA. Kevin engaged in these activities, though they didn’t lead anywhere but to regret. That said, he would always do it again a couple days later.
Kevin kept trying to make bigger and bigger commitments to remedy a toxic romantic relationship with his girlfriend even though they’d cheat, lie, and fight with each other constantly. This strategy didn’t work. His biggest commitment was to marry her, which ended in divorce.
Kevin got a ton of rejection auditioning for many roles, but he was used to the rejection from all the things his mom told him he couldn’t do growing up. All of a sudden, he tried to make a splash and win over the casting agent so that they would remember him even if the role he auditioned for wasn’t a fit for so they would keep remember him. He broke the tension by adding humor without trying too hard. He would do roles wrong to show he had levels of acting. He would sometimes lose a role on purpose knowing he may get a better one later if he made an impression. He almost always got call backs. While the people who act in a movie change, the people behind the scenes stay the same.
Treat each moment like a seed for the future. The man you treat well today can become a studio executive in ten years and remember how you treated him.
Complaining and moping about a bad situation will change nothing. It is easy to complain, but if you were to step into the life of someone you envy, you discover that we all have our own battles, and usually those battles are tougher than yours.
Studio executives called Kevin to consider him for television. His manager helped him get a bidding war started between executives until it ended with a $250,000 deal. The deal would hold him for a set period of time and cast him in TV roles that would be a good fit.
Kevin spent this money quickly, buying the nicest furniture and items. The problem was that he used a credit card, which didn’t let him see how much he was spending visually, which caused him to overspend. If he had a stack of cash, he could see how quickly the pile was shrinking, but a credit card was a magic card that always worked.
His behavior caused him to spend all his money. And the TV deal never led to much other than a TV show that got canceled after the pilot, which shattered his expectations. He complained and moped about it. But his dad taught him that if getting chased by a knife as a kid was okay, then losing his TV show was okay too.
The greatest lesson Kevin learned was humility. Nothing in life is certain. You can be rich and successful in one moment, and poor or dead in the next, even if you did all the right things. His TV show and film career at the time bombed, and afterwards no one in Hollywood would touch him. One moment, he had made multiple six figures, and the next, he couldn’t get a gig anymore. He eventually returned to stand-up comedy on the road rather than sit there with no opportunities in Hollywood. You should measure yourself by the effort you put in, not the result because we all end up dead.
Often, Kevin’s greatest opportunities are the ones he undervalued most. A successful producer pitched him a movie idea, and he was interested but did not think much of it. When pitched, there were a lot of projections and vague claims. In these situations, Kevin assess people not by what they say but by who they are. This producer was hard working. He ended up doing the movie, and it was successful.
Effective communication is one of the most important lessons he learned in business. He pissed off a manager by not mentioning to him he was giving discounts to shows when handing out flyers.
Kevin had a huge head start by marketed and promoting his comedy on Facebook and Twitter before others got involved. He hired a whole team he couldn’t afford to help him but the team increased his profit. A team will survive better than an individual.
Kevin’s Blueprint for Success
Positivity – secret to happiness, you get what you give
Commitment – If you make a promise or commitment to work or be someone, keep it.
Discomfort – never get too comfortable. Work gives meaning to life.
Persistence – you can fail but can’t quit, this factor is more responsible for his success than any other
Patience – keeps you from getting resentful and frustrated.
Class – no one is beneath you, class is about having great likeability
Learning – if you learn, you get your next gift. If you don’t, you repeat your mistakes.
Passion – do what you enjoy and that’s great way finding passions. Don’t overthink it.
Competition – you are competing with not against others. Competition turns passion into directed action.